Misery doesn’t just love company, it also inspires much of the art you enjoy (unless you’re a fan of ukulele music.) That link could be even stronger than we thought.
What psychologists call “neurotic unhappiness” and creativity have long known to be linked, though instead of Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison, researchers at King’s College London singled out physicist Isaac Newton, who got caught up in his anxieties both about the natural world and his own childhood.
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Their new theory posits that the same part of the brain that’s responsible for “self-generated thought” (read: jokes, lyrics, eureka moments) is especially highly active in neurotic people, whose brains turn possibilities into highlight reels of anxiety-fueled nightmares. Creativity and misery are not just good friends — they’re roommates.
The most commonly cited explanation for neuroticism is that these people are more sensitive to threat, according to the work of British psychologist Jeffrey Gray in the 1970s. He noticed that rodents taking anti-anxiety medication were less sensitive to punishment, while it helped relax his human patients, even making them more cheerful.
"Gray had a useful and logical theory, but the problem is that it doesn't account for the full spectrum of neuroticism — it's pretty difficult to explain neuroticism in terms of magnified threat perception because high scorers often feel unhappy in situations where there is no threat at all," says personality researcher Adam Perkins, who writes about the new theory in the most recent issue of Cell.
"The second problem is, there's literature showing neuroticism scores are positively correlated with creativity; and so why should having a magnified view of threat objects make you good at coming up with new ideas?"
The a-ha moment for Perkins came while listening to a lecture on daydreaming by University of York psychologist Jonathan Smallwood. MRIs of neurotic patients showed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex when they had a negative though — the same part of the brain that processes threat cues. Basically, neurotic people react biologically to an imaginary threat.
"This could mean that for specific neural reasons, high scorers on neuroticism have a highly active imagination, which acts as a built-in threat generator," Perkins says.
Overthinking can also explain the link to the positive aspects of being neurotic, which is often extraordinary creativity. While Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule for perfecting a skill is in dispute, the effects of long-term practice — or, in the case of creativity, thinking about an idea much longer than anyone else, revealing new and interesting angles — is not.
"We're still a long way off from fully explaining neuroticism, and we're not offering all of the answers,” Perkins says, “but we hope that our new theory will help people make sense of their own experiences and show that although being highly neurotic is by definition unpleasant, it also has creative benefits.”